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Bethlehem: Moslem-Christian living together

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 18.05.2006:

The land of Palestine is inhabited by a majority of Moslems who, like the Christians and the Jews, venerate many of the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament, and who also feel a special relationship with Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Prophet Jesus (or ‘Isa in Arabic). Of all the Christian saints, Moslems venerate especially Mary, the mother of Jesus, to whom a full sura (chapter 19) in the Koran is dedicated. Moreover, since the beginnings of Islam, Bethlehem was included in the Moslem pilgrimage route that followed the road from Jerusalem, with its Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, to Hebron, with the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.

The Moslem-Christian living together in Palestine indeed goes back to the beginnings of Islam. Even though there have been periods of proselytizing and, at tragic moments of history, cases of oppression and discrimination, the general picture is one of a Moslem-Christian living together in daily peace, respect and cooperation. It is common to hear Palestinians saying that it does not matter whether one is Moslem or Christian; both believe in the same God, speak the same language and share the same Arabic culture.

Culture of the land

What has sustained this living together? A major element is what we previously called the “culture of the land,” stretching back thousands of years. Living in an area that is fertile but very much dependent on rain, the Palestinian peasants saw the world and nature as a precarious gift. They invented or re-adapted creation stories in which benevolent deities shaped nature and gave it life, whereas evil gods represented the destructive forces that threatened to throw life back to primordial chaos. Essential to survival was the ability to invoke the good gods’ mercy. The Canaanite inhabitants of the land of Palestine therefore looked for material symbols and signs that could give them access to the divine world.

Not surprisingly, they searched for spots in nature that could fill human beings with awe and wonder, such as high places and old trees, caves and groves, wells and fountains. There they prayed, made sacrifices and received blessings. In the course of time, such places would become associated with holy persons or “awlia” (plural of “weli”) who were seen as mediating between the people and the gods. One could recognize such places by a sudden appearance of light, the smell of incense, or the sound of religious music or prayer.

In due time those places would become imbued with more circumscribed religious meanings. Wonder stories celebrated one or another healing property of the site or of the weli living there. Essentially, such places were icons, small representations, of the larger sacred world. According to peasant belief all creation is infused by the sacred. More than anybody else the peasant knew that the gift of life should not be taken for granted. It was the fruit of a hard-won struggle, the success of which depended not just on peasant labor but on supernatural grace.

Adoption of ancient practices

When the “Hapiru” or Hebrews appeared in the history of Canaan, they shared this local culture. Up until the Babylonian period of the 6th century BC, the Hebrews regarded Yahweh as co-existing with several other deities associated with the land. Most Hebrew leaders considered it folly to estrange those neighboring gods. With few exceptions, the Hebrew Kings took care to include local worship practices in their social world. Much later on, Christianity and Islam did the same. Even though the new religions broke with the earlier polytheistic traditions and developed a distinctly new morality and divine understanding of their own, a great many of the existing popular practices were taken over.

For instance, Canaanites thought ancient trees, located on a high place or near a well, as being favored by the awlia or saints. The peasant hung rags of clothes on such trees to show humility; he also prayed there and used the fruits for healing purposes. Later on, Christianity and Islam would emphasize the symbolic potential of trees and plants. The main trees of the land, such as the olive, fig and grape, are frequently mentioned in Biblical and Koranic parables, while the popular folklore of the new religions came to include many tree stories. Thus, Christians used to say that all trees kneel down in veneration of God during the feast of Epiphany (January 7) and the feast of the Cross (September 23). Moslems believe that during the 27th of Ramadan, when the heavens open their doors for God to appear, the trees bow so as to avoid witnessing Him.

This is but one example of the influence of the ancient peasant culture on the stories and customs that came to be shared by Islamic and Christian believers in the area. Two “inter-religious” customs call for special attention because of their influence up until the present-day: vow making and festive religious celebrations.

Vow making

Vow making is a religious custom in which a believer promises to perform a pious act or some form of labor in exchange for help from a weli or saint. In the West, vow making is sometimes practiced when prayers are directed to St Anthony for the purpose of recovering something precious that is lost. In Palestine, like elsewhere in the Mediterranean area, vow making practices have traditionally been much richer than in the West. In visiting a common place of worship, such as the tomb of a local saint, Moslems and Christians offered olive oil, burned incense, put on a candle, conducted an act of fasting, promised to give an amount of money for the maintenance of the shrine, or presented another material or symbolic gift. In exchange, the saint helped them to get a child, to overcome an illness, or to keep a family member out of prison, among other things.

Many saints possessed special healing powers. There were saints for the mentally disturbed, for the deaf, for the blind, for childless women. In case one could not travel to the shrine or holy place, because of an illness for instance, it was possible to perform the vow through the mediation of another person. Alternatively, a priest could visit the homes to collect contributions for a vow, such as when first fruits were collected during the olive, grape or fig harvests; a community practice quite familiar in Palestine before the 1950s.

In a traditionally Christian area like Bethlehem, it was common up until recent time, that Moslems venerated Christian saints and places. When Moslem or Christian women wished to have a child, they visited the Milk Grotto close to the Church of the Nativity, took out some chalk from the wall or ground, rubbed it in water and took a drink from it. According to tradition, it was at that place that Mary fertilized the ground while breastfeeding Jesus. Vow making was shared across the religions. Moslem women promised to give their baby a Christian name if their childbearing wish was fulfilled. In the Bethlehem and Hebron areas still many Moslems bear the names of “George” or “Elias.” It even happened that childless Moslem families who wished to have a baby vowed that they would baptize their child if their wish was fulfilled. In such cases, the Christian priest asked the Moslem parents whether they wished their child to become Christian. Usually they said no, and the priest then baptized the child with water but not with the oil (the sacrament of confirmation), which meant that the child, following the parents’ wish, did not become a Christian.

Another popular example of Moslem worship at Christian sites was the scratching of inscriptions at wells devoted to Mary, as those in Bethlehem’s neighboring towns Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. A particularly artistic practice here was the use of henna, a reddish natural material traditionally used to beautify the bride at a wedding. The henna was smeared on the well as token evidence of gratitude for the help by the saint.

Badriyyeh’s shrine

Not only Moslems vowed at religious shrines which were not their own. In their turn, Christians performed vows at Moslem places. For instance, the Christian women of Beit Jala used to visit the tomb of Badriyyeh (or “moon”) to the west of town in the village of Waladjeh. Badriyyeh was a female weli known for her effective intercessions. The Palestinian folklorist Tawfiq Canaan provides an extensive account of the stories connected with the famous sultan Bader, her father, who came from Persia in the 7th century to roam the countryside west of Bethlehem and help the Moslem armies in their siege of Jerusalem. He was said to have been able to multiply loaves of bread and to create a series of wells on the hills by breaking a water jar and dispersing the shreds all over the ground. Religious folklore often borrows from older narratives to serve a new context. At Badriyyeh’s shrine, the Christians followed the old practices of putting candles and hanging pieces of clothes on iron bars; they even gave their jewelry.

Rain processions

Whereas vow making was a personal or family matter most of the time, it also happened that in case of a draught or during critical political conditions the people, Moslems and Christians, collectively came together to invoke the divine. During a rain procession the people implored the saints to deliver life-giving water. It was ancient practice in the Bethlehem region that Moslem and Christian peasants marched together carrying a stick in front of them on which a ragged puppet was attached, which represented Mary or another rain-bringing saint. As lack of rain was considered to be God’s punishment for the wicked deeds of men, the peasants vowed that they would better their life. They sometimes walked in bare rags to demonstrate their humility in the face of God. The walk could lead deep into the countryside – a reminder of the ancient past when prophets and monks visited the Biblical wilderness in order to purify themselves from sin. Sometimes children walked in front of the adults. As children were naturally not responsible for the sins of their parents, their presence was supposed to soften God’s wrath.

During the rain processions people sang or chanted songs like the following one in Beit Jala which is directed at the local patron, Saint Nicholas:

We have come to you, St Nicholas!

O stream of rain, I implore you!

We are today your servants,

Heaven’s key is in your hand –

Bring water, Oh bring water,

Put the bread beans in the jar,

And wait for God’s mercy,

St Nicholas, O our neighbor!

O friend of our young and old,

Intercede (for us) with our God,

Send rain, O our Lord, on our land!

O our Lord, O our Lord.

Because of the scarcity of rain on our land

(We implore you) O St Nicholas to intercede (for us) with our God.

We are coming to you, St Nicholas,

We are young and we submit to you,

We are today under your protection;

Send us (therefore) rain, O our Lord.

Palestinian feasts

Many present-day Palestinian feasts, too, have deep roots in the Canaanite culture of the land. While vow making usually happened in times of need, celebrations marked moments of gratitude and joy. Moslem and Christian families used to come together for the purpose of harvesting or performing a collective work like building a house. Such moments of working together reflected a community spirit that was often gaily expressed in group chanting and singing. During the evening all people, including hired workers, would come together under the trees in the field to share food, drinks and story-telling. In a way, the celebration expressed the balance of a peasant’s life oscillating between the hard work of the day and the celebration of God’s creation during the night. Moon and stars cast a setting that inspired a feeling of community. After all the anxieties and misfortunes of daily life, such celebrations brought back a sense of wholesomeness.

In the course of time such ancient festive celebrations would be appropriated by the monotheistic religions and brought in connection with themes and narratives central to their own. Thus, the present Jewish feast of Succoth in September/October goes back to the Canaanite autumn agricultural celebrations in which the victory of Baal, the life-giving Canaanite God, over Moot, the God of Death, was celebrated. Later the Canaanite feast would be connected with the Hebrew Exodus. Still later on, the harvest feast would inspire the secular feast of Thanksgiving now popular in the West. This process of borrowing is characteristic for many religious customs. As we saw, Christmas too is a feast celebrated at a moment in time that was previously associated with the ancient pagan celebration of the solstice, the coming of new light and life.

This celebration of nature has left its mark everywhere. The Palestinian peasant calendar, Moslem and Christian, used to be punctuated by feasts associated with the agricultural cycle. Pentecost was the feast of the beginning of the harvest when the people left their houses to stay in the open fields, while the Feast of the Cross, September 23, heralded the end of the harvest celebrations when people returned home. St Elias’ feast on July 9 signaled the coming of the first packs of clouds. Nature and community-building were so central to the spirit of those feasts that the question whether they were Moslem, Christian or pagan in origin did not matter much to the peasants who were in any case not well-versed in the dogmatic differences between the religious beliefs.

The Mamre festival

In connection with the festive celebrations on the land, we may briefly pay attention to the ancient festival at Mamre in Hebron, a town located only half-an hour drive from Bethlehem to the south. During the early centuries after Christ the annual fair at the sacred Oak of Mamre attracted visitors from not just the local area but from all over the Middle Eastern region. In Mamre Abraham was said to have met the three angels, one of them a hidden appearance of Yahweh. It was no coincidence that Abraham was commemorated by so many, including pagans, Christian, Jews, and Moslems. For Palestinians, Abraham is the “Friend of God” or Al-Khalil, which is the Arabic name of Hebron. Abraham has always been the symbol of hospitality and, because of his tolerant attitude towards the Canaanites in the country, he has come to symbolize, up until the present-day, the possibility of accommodation between different peoples and cultures.

Visitors came together at Mamre for celebrations, vow making and offering of sacrifices. The Mamre cult represented a veneration of pagan deities side by side with monotheistic worship. It is interesting to notice, however, that the festival did not encourage the promiscuity often associated with Canaanite religious practices. All people, pagan or monotheistic, abstained from intercourse in advance of and during their attendance. At the same time, the camping by people around the terrain, the music, the hustle and bustle, and lively conversations evoked a gay open-air experience that many people nowadays would consider a holiday highlight.

Al-Khader or St. George

All of the above elements of vow-making and celebrations are also relevant to the practices devoted to a saint who, apart from the Virgin Mary, is the most popular among the common people of the Bethlehem area and perhaps Palestine at large: St. George for the Christians, Al-Khader (the Green One) for the Moslems. The different religious and popular stories about this saint give some interesting clues about the intricate ways of living together of Moslems and Christians in the past, while also providing a glimpse into the future possibilities for an understanding “across religious borders” (the expression is from an ongoing project of schools with Moslem and Christian students from the Bethlehem area who, among other things, study the stories of Al-Khader for the purpose of community-building).

In the West St. George is known as the patron saint of England who slew the dragon. This tradition dates back to the Crusaders, who took over Palestinian forms of worship and brought them to their homelands. St. George is said to have lived at the end of the third, beginning fourth century during the time of the anti-Christian persecutions conducted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He was supposedly born and buried in Lydda, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, while living most of his life in Anatolia or Armenia. Different monasteries and churches claim to be the site where he fought the dragon; the sites include Lydda, Beirut, and places in Turkey. The saint’s mother was said to live in a house nearby Bethlehem in the village that now bears his name, Al-Khader. There the Romans were thought to have imprisoned him. Many Greek-Orthodox churches or monasteries throughout the Middle East claim to possess the saint’s tomb or bones.

St. George is frequently depicted in a sculpture on the door lintels of Bethlehem houses, especially, but not only, Christian ones. The Greek-Orthodox venerate the saint in the afore-mentioned Moslem village of Al-Khader which is located to the southwest of Bethlehem. The local priest there, father Methodios, is the only Christian in town. He supervises the mass and also the regular vow making conducted in equal numbers by local Moslems and visiting Christians. Visitors bring not only small items but also large sheep, which are slaughtered in the church courtyard. The blood is taken home and put upon the door to protect the family. When a Moslem enters the church, he or she may find the right prayer direction by facing the large picture of St. George which points to the south, to Mecca. The church also contains an iron lock which one may put around one’s neck to prevent mental illness. Until the end of the 19th century there used to be a house for the mentally ill which was connected to the monastery. St. George, a saint to whom is attributed special powers for helping the mentally ill, was known to appear there.

St. George’s feast day is May 6. The evening before Moslems and Christians gather for a picnic under the trees around the church. (Many of the trees have lately been cut to make way for an Israeli bypass road). Early in the morning the next day, Greek Orthodox Christians from Beit Jala and Bethlehem walk in procession towards the church. During the day people make vows in a festive atmosphere. Throughout the year, but especially on the saint’s day, local people are said to experience appearances and wonders of St. George. At the time of the olive harvest, a priest with a car with an image of Al-Khader in the front used to pass by the fields to collect olive oil. People kissed the image when giving the oil. On the eve of their wedding Moslem and Christian couples went to the Church of Al-Khader for the groom to be shaved, an act in preparation of a new stage in life.


What are the reasons for the saint’s popularity? Like the other popular Bethlehem saint with whom he is sometimes identified, St. Elias (or Elijah), St. George is a rainbringer and therefore precious to a population in an area which regularly faces a lack of water. Khader or “green” refers to fertility. When thunder comes, one hears St. George on his galloping horse. During rain processions, the peasants used to carry his picture. As a youth he is said to have drunk from the fountain of life and so he became “evergreen.” He usually chooses fertile, green places to stay, but he also makes dry sites green by sitting on them. Once he emptied his water jug on a prickly pear that since then stayed green: the cactus. Like so many other saints and awlia, he is present at special places across Palestine where people venerate him. However, it is also his peculiar characteristic not to be bound by place and time. He is ever moving and a proverb says that a watchful and ever-present man is like St. George; or, when one meets somebody within a short period at several different places, the other person is “like St. George.” A spokesperson of the Al-Khader community interviewed at the beginning of the 20th century contended that St. George was an ever-present saint; right at the moment of talking he could feel his presence and ask for his protection. In homes, too, he might be invisibly present. When during a meal some loaves of bread fall down the table or when bread is pushed towards the table edge, Christians said that St. George was present and was taking his share of the meal. Similarly, up until this day some Jewish families keep one table place open for Elijah during the dinner of a major feast like Pesach. As for Moslems, tradition says that during the night between Thursday and Friday Al-Khader visits several wells that bear his name. The saint moves as fast as he wants. As people say, he is the only saint “who is not dead”; that is why people can see him galloping on his horse in the sky.

Concrete and general

Interestingly, the image of a saint who is beyond time and space neatly parallels the Palestinian peasant’s basic appreciation of nature as inspiring awe for the sacred. On the one hand, St George refers to a very concrete historical person who is venerated at special holy places, and who is seen as assisting particular persons in need. On the other hand, he is also the personification of a generalized experience of sacredness which is to be found everywhere and which is felt perhaps especially by those people who are receptive to the beauty and fragility of the gifts of nature and life. Previously we saw to what extent Christianity, especially its Greek-Orthodox tradition, allows for an understanding of the world around us as being infused by the sacred. Moslems agree. They too value the art of being sensitive and open to the surrounding world as a way to gain access to the divine. By becoming open to the (potential) beauty of nature and life, people learn to be grateful for what they owe to God. According to Christian thinking, God is, although not visible, ever-present around us. It is possible to connect with Him through the energies of the divine that are seen at special occasions as radiating from people and nature. For Moslems too, it is essential to stay watchful, to be in touch with the imminent life-giving sacredness around us, and to open up the senses, including the imagination, in reaching out to the God-given world. Here Moslems and Christians have a shared approach towards a truth that the Palestinian peasants had already taught themselves since time immemorial. Jews too, share this understanding of the sacred and, incidentally, used to make pilgrimage to Al-Khader before the 20th century pitted Jews and Palestinians against each other.

There is an additional reason for St. George’s traditional popularity, which also accounts for the popularity of another saint, St. Elias, who has very similar traits. St. George is known as the patron saint of the travelers and the salesmen. He watches over the desert and the sea and protects the travelers when they face predicaments. According to tradition, the St. George monastery in Al-Khader was founded by a rich traveler who, being deceived by his travel companions and forced to continue his journey without money, invoked St. George’s support. As a vow the traveler promised to erect a monastery. St. George pointed out the right place for the building and helped him in his needs. In other stories, St. George guides people in finding their way in life. In one story a peasant assisted by St. George directed Queen Helena in finding the True Cross and, fairytale-like, ended up marrying the queen’s daughter.


There is here an interesting connection with Islamic belief. The role of St George as guide and protector is likely related to the story of Al-Khidr in the Koran. Al-Khidr is the guide of Musa (Moses) on his way to acquiring maturity and wisdom. In a passage known for its moral complexity, Al-Khidr says that Musa will not be able to bear him as a companion – how can he bear what is beyond knowledge? He asks Musa not to question him, and Musa promises to do so. However, Musa cannot restrain his surprise when Al-Khidr bores a hole in the bottom of the ship in which they sail. For one time, Al-Khidr bears Musa’s impatience although he does not answer his questions. When they journey on, Al-Khidr slays an innocent man. Musa rebukes him, and again Al-Khidr keeps patient. They travel on. When they ask some people to provide food, it is refused. Al-Khidr then helps to restore a wall of the house that belongs to the very same inhospitable people. Again Musa protests, and asks why Al-Khidr did not ask for payment. After this renewed show of impatience, Al-Khidr says it is time for him to depart. He explains his deeds, saying that the ship belonged to poor fishermen who were followed by a King who wanted to rob them of their possessions. By damaging the ship, he helped them to escape. As for the youth, Al-Khidr says, his parents were true believers and, since the youth would corrupt them, Al-Khidr slew him. The Lord would grant them another child in his place, a son more righteous. As for the wall: it belonged to two orphan boys who had their treasure buried beneath it. They would be able to dig up their treasure when growing up to manhood.

This episode of the Koran has been a base of inspiration for several stories in which St George or Al-Khidr appears doing astonishing deeds that beg explanation. The Moslems of Al-Khader village were said to have told the following tale at the beginning of the 20th century:

“Musa, in need of guidance, asked Allah to enlighten him. Allah told him to meet his instructor at a certain place. Musa did what he was told to do and found a venerable dervish who requested from him not to make any remarks or questions concerning anything he might see him doing when they journeyed together. Musa promised to do so.

At sunset they reached a village and went to the house of a sheikh who provided generous hospitality. At bedtime they were led to a large, well-furnished room. The vessels for ceremonial absolution were of silver and set with jewels. Musa fell asleep, but at daylight his companion woke him up, saying that they must leave at once. Musa objected. ‘Remember the terms of our contract’, said the dervish, and he coolly slipped the silver vessel into the bosom of his robe. Musa rose in silence and they left the house.

That evening they reached another village and were once more the guests of a sheikh, this time a stingy one. For sleep, he directed the guests towards a cave behind the stable. While Musa could not eat from the bare crumbles he was offered, his companion seemed to have a good meal and could not wake up next morning. Musa, hungry, wished to leave immediately, but his companion preferred to sleep longer. Musa barely could hide his amazement when the dervish, in apparent gratitude for the slim meal, offered his host the silver vessel. Musa however, mindful of his promise, did not say a word.

The third day’s journey was through a barren region, where Musa was glad to have the scraps of bread which but for the dervish he would have thrown away. Towards the evening, they came to a river, which the dervish did not want to cross. They stayed the night in a miserable hut where the widow of a ferryman lived with her orphan nephew, a boy of thirteen. The poor woman did everything in her power to make them comfortable. She sent her nephew to show them the way over a part of the bridge that had collapsed in the water. She shouted instructions at the boy to guide the visitors safely. When they were halfway the bridge, the dervish seized the boy by the neck, flung him into the water, and drowned him. ‘Murderer!’ Musa exclaimed.

The dervish then said, ‘Once more you have forgotten the terms of our agreement, and now it is time for me to depart’. ‘All that was done was predestined by Divine mercy. Our first host was too ostentatious. The loss of the vessel taught him a lesson. The second host was stingy. Now he will begin to be hospitable in the hope of gain, but the habit will grow upon him. The drowned boy went to Paradise, whereas had he lived but two years longer, he would have killed his benefactress, and in the following year he would have killed you.'”


The message of these stories does not easily sink in. Some of the decisions made by Al-Khidr clearly appear inhuman and risk to be understood as divine vindication of cruelty. But the stories also show that the world, following the course of human beings inclined towards particular deeds, is open to improvement and change by divine efforts. God’s intervention through Al-Khidr teaches that reality is not always what it looks. The Koran-based stories of Al-Khidr point to a transcendent reality behind the superficial reality we know. It takes a special effort to open oneself up to this reality. In fact, it may be impossible for a normal human being to fully bear the divine knowledge which Al-Khidr confides. This reminds of a basic problem of daily life; all people have moments that they are unable to grasp the meaning of events around them. Yet the very fact that we learn that there is a different reality behind what we know is elevating. It teaches us to consider the possibility of looking at reality in a critical or imaginative way.

Fascinated by the stumbling communication between Musa and Al-Khidr, many Sufi mystics consider Al-Khidr as their special guide. In the same way as Al-Khidr warned Musa to be patient, and to restrain his spontaneous passions; Sufis taught themselves and others to master their passions in order to reach a transcendent world through inner meditation, in a similar way as monks practiced their devotion in the desert wilderness. We may add here that several known Sufis used to live in the Bethlehem countryside. In the villages of Battir and ‘Ubeidiyeh inhabitants still know sacred places associated with Sufis.

From the above we can see that each religion has its own unique interpretations of the sacred. However, in the living practice of believers these interpretations came to be intertwined. The anthropologist Glenn Bowman, who recently studied the worshiping practices at the sites of St. George and St. Elias in the Bethlehem region, says that the interfaith forms of worship practiced there may serve as a broader model for pilgrimage in the Holy Land. According to him, present pilgrimage is too often conducted in religious seclusion. In his opinion, future pilgrimage should involve encounters and exchanges between people from different religions who share the holiness of the sites. By doing so they “come to see the miraculousness of a land which enriches people’s lives by mirroring back to them as a gift what they unknowingly bring to it.”

Other forms of interfaith worship

The intertwining of Palestinian religious practices also happened in churches and mosques or at home. Up until recently, Moslems used to visit the Church of the Nativity and pray in the southern apse (St. George’s chapel) that faces Mecca. In their turn, Christians were accustomed to visit the Mosque of ‘Omar opposite the Church of the Nativity. As we saw before, this mosque was erected there to commemorate the presence of ‘Omar in Bethlehem at the beginning of the Moslem era when he offered the church authorities a covenant in which the Church of the Nativity was spared and Christian worship tolerated.

Perhaps most revealing are the touching stories of Moslems and Christians who, befitting a culture characterized by mutual borrowing, adopted each other’s worshipping customs.

Elham Hamed is a Moslem principal of the government school in ‘Ubeidiyeh, the village to the southeast of Bethlehem located not far from the convent of Theodosios. She says that as a young girl she studied at a Christian school. “At home, I used to pray before dinner and everybody would wait until I finished my prayer. Sometimes visitors asked my mother: ‘Why is she doing this?’ She then answered them: ‘My daughter only thanks God for giving her this food.'”

Other common Moslem-Christian customs are not so much rooted in shared forms of worshipping but are rather part of the practice of adopting cultural items just for the pleasure of it. Festive customs help to color a daily life that due to the hard political and social circumstances is in urgent need of some uplifting. Thus, it is nowadays common to see Moslems in the Bethlehem region having a Christmas tree, or to color and hide Easter eggs. Conversely, the moon-shaped pancakes sold in a festive atmosphere during Ramadan are also consumed by Christians at special occasions like Epiphany.

A Moslem-Christian dialogue?

There is a message underlying all this. Many Bethlehemites protest against the use of an expression such as “Moslem-Christian dialogue” because this presumes that there exist two well-circumscribed groups who in some way need to be reconciled with each other. For Bethlehemites, such an approach distorts reality. The lives of Palestinian Moslems and Christians are entangled in a myriad of ways. They share place, language, culture, and history. Christians and Moslems were pitted against other Moslems and Christians in the feuds characteristic of a social system that used to be based, and to some extent is still based, on the power of tribes or extended families rather than on the influence of religion. As we saw in the history chapter, Christians contributed towards the development of Arab nationalism and the formation of protests during and after the British mandate in the urge to protect Palestinian lands. Bethlehemites still cherish reminiscences of the mutual help extended by Christians and Moslems during the critical moments in their history when the community of Palestine was fragmented due to the uprooting of 1948. The best way to catch the atmosphere between Christians and Moslems during those and later days is again through some personal stories collected from members of school communities in the Bethlehem region.


A Moslem woman of Dheisha refugee camp near Bethlehem, Rabiha, tells about the time when her family was forced to leave their village in 1948.

“We arrived in Beit Jala where the (Christian) community came out and greeted us with open arms. We were forty refugee families who were given shelter, food and drinks by the people of Beit Jala. They would not accept any money even for bread. Whenever the meals were cooked we were always included. On the day of my wedding, I was taken from our Christian friend’s house as if it was my own house. Their sons escorted me as if they were my own brothers.

My favorite events took place during the religious holidays when we all would visit one another. The Christian boys from the Abu Saba family would fast with us during Ramadan. We never felt any obstacles between one another as Moslems and Christians. I remember at one occasion, when my young son suffered from dehydration, that he was admitted to hospital for treatment. A local Christian nurse who treated him took him into her arms as if he was her own son. She breastfed him into health. We became best friends and both our sons, too.”

During the 1950s and 1960s Moslems and Christians helped each other during the harvest. A local family from Beit Jala named Sarras owned large tracts of land in the Assioun region to the south of the town. The Moslem refugees volunteered to help their friends. In return the Sarras family would not let them leave without fruits and vegetables as compensation for their hard work.


There was a strong relation between a woman called Imm [mother of] Mohammed and Imm Mitri. Local people immediately recognize both names as being Moslem and Christian respectively. Mohammed refers to Islam’s main prophet whereas Mitri is Arabic for (Saint) Demetrius. Imm Mitri used to own the oldest house in Bethlehem and she possessed large tracts of lands. She had two sons who both lived in the United States. The two ladies were the best of friends, regardless of their religious affiliation. Whenever Imm Mitri would cook, they would sit together to eat. Imm Mitri would ask Imm Mohammed’s children to collect old wood to kindle a fire for heating up the Turkish coffee they drank together.

During the olive season, they would all harvest olives together. Once the olives were pressed into oil, Imm Mitri would distribute bottles of oil to friends and poor families, both Moslem and Christian. As a religious gesture, she always sent a bottle of olive oil to five different churches, each associated with a different saint. At times, Imm Mitri felt lonely and afraid to sleep alone at night. Imm Mohammed would then take her to sleep amongst her children so that she felt secure. During one occasion, Imm Mohammed’s son Ahmed found Imm Mitri had cut her hand and was bleeding severely. They immediately took her to hospital where she was treated. Imm Mohammed brought her home and looked after her until she was well again.

Another story of friendship across religious borders is about Imm Sabri and Imm Shamsi, both of Bethlehem. As neighbors they spent a lot of time together. Imm Sabri is a Moslem who prays and fasts during Ramadan. Imm Shamsi is a devout Christian who has a statue of the Virgin Mary in her house, and who regularly lights a candle in front of it to bless both families. The two women used to play cards with one another all night long and cook and eat together during the day. Whenever one of them had fallen ill, the other lady would take over the chores of her friend and look after her. Both women would rather help one another than ask help from their families.

When Abu Shamsi, the husband of Imm Shamsi, died in February 1970, Imm Sabri supported Imm Shamsi in her moment of sorrow. She even prepared Abu Shamsi’s funeral, and cleaned his corpse for burial. On that same day, Imm Sabri received the news that she had been longing to hear for a long time: her only son gave birth to a baby boy. But since she was so upset from the death of her best friend’s husband, she did not show any sign of joy. From her side, when Imm Shamsi heard the news she was very excited and pleased for her friend.

Moslem-Christian politics

Given such close bonds as a result of friendship, neighborliness and family or tribal alliances, it comes to no surprise that the political Palestinian scene, too, has been characterized by strong Christian-Moslem bonds. As we saw, the political misfortunes had thrown Moslems and Christians in the same boat. Especially during Labor governments, Israel did its best to establish a form of cooperation with the Christian churches in Jerusalem, in the process aiming to prevent a joint stand of Moslem and Christian representatives. However, throughout the time of occupation the different religious institutions regularly cooperated with each other. From the beginning of the 1980s on – perhaps in response to a growing Islamic trend at the time – there appeared more calls for Moslem-Christian cooperation made by individual churches and organizations that arranged Moslem-Christian meetings. In Bethlehem it was the interfaith association Al-Liqa (“the meeting”) who took the initiative. During the Intifada, the local heads of the churches as well as the Islamic Mufti of Jerusalem, issued statements expressing concern for the fate of their communities and support for the national Palestinian rights. Both the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the PLO, appealed to Christians for fulfilling important posts.

Since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority on the Palestinian lands in 1994-1995, Christians have been included in its hierarchy. In the elections for the Legislative Council of the Authority, two of the four seats for the Bethlehem district were assigned to Christians. Although there are voices here and there which plead for more acceptance of Christians in some of the bodies of the Authority, such as the police force, there is little doubt that the PNA sincerely strives to keep misconduct towards Christians in check. That the PNA was guilty of persecution of Christians, as the Israeli government contended in 1997-1998, was proved to be totally baseless by Palestinian Human Rights Organizations.


This does not mean that Christian-Moslem relations are always and everywhere as they should be. There have been skirmishes between local people on some sensitive cultural topics such as the dress of Christian girls or a provocative pronouncement by a local sheikh. But it is important here to keep a few aspects in mind. Firstly, it is certainly not always Moslems who should be blamed; Christians too have their own habits of “fundamentalism” and ignorance. Secondly, conflicts are almost always not connected with religious tensions, but rather with cultural, family, village or tribal problems which may (although often do not) follow religious lines. Thirdly, until now conflicts have not led to the formation of specifically Christian or Moslem institutions which preach separation of identity formation along “Lebanese” lines. For instance, the idea of separate Christian parties as opposed to Moslem parties has never been on the agenda in Palestine.

Often frictions are based on ignorance. A woman from Dheisha refugee camp told the following striking instances:

“Once there was a young Moslem boy called Mohammed Khader who attended the Silesian Don Bosco School in Bethlehem. He played basketball in the school’s team. Once they played a match in Gaza with a local team. During the game, some players approached Mohammed asking why he played with “Israelis” as they were the Palestinians’ enemies. The boys from Gaza presumed that some of the Bethlehemites were Israelis because of their names, like Elie and George. The Gazan boys were very surprised that there were Christian Palestinians with such names.”

The woman who gave the story above spent six years at the Talitha Kumi Lutheran School in Beit Jala where she was known to be a studious and polite student. “On one occasion I was with a group of girls who observed a group of boys doing inappropriate things. This led one of the girls to comment: ‘Oh look at those dirty Moslems’, not realizing that I was a Moslem too. I told them that I was a Moslem too and that they could see that I was not dirty. They were shocked to learn that I could be a Moslem.”

Diversity and unity

In general, Palestinian history and sociology is characterized by two broad tendencies. The first is one of diversity in which people of all walks of life show the art of living besides each other, sometimes due to need, sometimes due to preference. In the relatively small Bethlehem area we can observe a surprisingly broad spectrum of cultures and customs. They differ according to whether one has a village or town background, whether one is a refugee or not, whether one is from Hebron or Bethlehem, whether one is Moslem or Christian. This diversity has engendered among many a certain wisdom in dealing with others. Bethlehemites are skillful in “identity negotiation.” They have learned when and how to bring forward different aspects of their multidimensional identity. Of course, there is also the gossiping and joking behind one’s back but the stereotypes are usually not of a devious nature. Essentially, Palestinians are, although often emotional, rather good-natured and tolerant in dealing with the tensions and frustrations of daily life.

The second tendency is one of unification. The political situation has put Palestinians under heavy pressure, both politically and economically. Given that Israel has historically attempted to divide Palestinians from each other, there is a strong urge among them to unify, either under the banner of national identity, or, more problematically for Christians, under the religious banner of Islam.


The challenge for many Palestinian Christians is now to accommodate the tendencies in a fruitful manner. Diversity should not hurt unity, while unity should not suppress diversity. It is this philosophy that guides some of the Moslem-Christian projects that are presently being implemented in the Bethlehem region.

For instance, Al-Liqa’ as well as local schools in the region organizes celebrations in which Moslems and Christians both participate. Al-Liqa organizes a traditional annual Moslem-Christian Christmas celebration. Says one head teacher whose son is at the Freres School: “During Ramadan my son brought me an invitation from his school to prepare and bring my Iftar meal (the meal after a day of fasting) and share it with Christian families. It was a lovely evening. This was a simple and easy lesson that established a real practical dialogue.”

Education is the prime channel to combat ignorance. Community leaders presently stress that Christians should learn about Moslem beliefs, not from a Christian but rather from the Moslem point of view; conversely, Moslems should learn about Christianity in the same manner. Moreover, Moslems and Christians should not only learn about each other’s beliefs and dogmas, but also visit each other’s holy places and share each other’s stories and celebrations. Such initiatives may help to create an intimate feeling of each other’s religions rather than just bare knowledge. At the same time, Christian and Moslem customs and stories are part of the broader Palestinian heritage, and may thus help to strengthen this heritage in an open, enriching manner.


Arab Educational Institute: Bethlehem Community Book, 1999

Culture and Palestine series

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